The Middle East is in turmoil. ISIS is running amok. A civil war continues in Syria. Yemen is on the verge of collapse. Iran is working on developing a nuclear weapon. Israel continues to build settlements on the West Bank. The Taliban continues to destabilize Afghanistan. Pakistan continues to shield our enemies. The headlines each day are filled with depressing news. It is difficult to tell the players with a scorecard. What should our policy be in the Middle East?
What is not in the headlines is what the real geopolitical struggle is all about. It is about the influence and power of petro dollars and the competition between our alleged ally Saudi Arabia and our alleged enemy Iran over who will have the greatest influence and power in the region.
The struggle for political and religious dominance has quite a history. The history of oil and Islam has a split within the Sunni part of the Muslim faith. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, that’s right billion with a b.
It is important to recognize that the vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, between 87-90%. The remaining percentage primarily live in 4 countries, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India.
Within the Sunni world there is a split between Sufi Muslims. The bulk of Sufis are found in the cities of the Middle East, including Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca and Baghdad.
For the purpose of our discussion the fundamentalist Salafi Muslims have been called the Muslims of the Arabian desert. Saudi Arabia allegedly our friend has been funneling millions of dollars into the hands of the fundamentalist Muslims who preach the extremism of Jihad.
Saudi Arabia and its oil money has more than encouraged a form of radical extremism whose intent is to return to the world of the 7th century caliphate. The Saudis trumpet the tenets of the very conservative Wahhabi faith. Although Saudi Arabia only represents 1% of the Muslim population, their financial contributions make up 90% of the expenses of the Sunni. They fund the building of mosques, they pay for literally thousands of religious schools. The money for these expenditures comes from a tax, a religious tax called a zakat. The desert Muslim is very conservative with the status of women being less than equal in western standards. The Wahhabi faithful look at Westerners as being infidels.
While Saudi money goes to Hamas, Iranian support goes to Hezbollah. Since the end of the Shah’s days in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran have become rivals to see who would become the leader of the Muslim world. An arms race is occurring between the Saudi backed Salafis and the Iranian backed Shiites.
Saudi Arabia is the number 1 producer of oil in the region and Iran ranks number 2. Money from oil and the geopolitical fight for power and influence stir the pot in the Middle East.
Yes, the Bush Administration did not help by destabilizing Iraq in their attempt to do nation building. But the seeds of discord between the Sunni and the Shia has a long and simmering history of dislike and hate.
What should America do knowing these facts? Iraq is primarily Shiite, and Iran is Shiite, but in point of fact the world is Sunni when it comes to the Muslim faithful. America faces a difficult set of problems. How can we affect a positive change, is that even possible? If we recognize that any military action with boots on the ground is an unthinkable choice due to the fact that at some point the people of the region have to decide what they want, what do we do? Give air support but to who? Do we just concentrate on protecting the United States from lone wolf terrorists or terrorist cells? It seems clear that ISIS intends on attacking westerners to help with their recruitment.
One part of this quagmire that we haven’t heard enough about is the human tragedy of the refugees, the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of this religious war for dominance. The United Nations needs to step in and help the helpless.
The world faces the prospect of an ever widening regional conflict between the two sides, the Saudi influenced allies and the Iranian intention of being a dominant power in the region. If Turkey is eventually drawn into this there is no telling how far this conflict will go. I personally wish the UN could call a timeout and the killing would stop. An eye for an eye will just makes each side blind to peace. Can there be any resolution of the huge problems that beset the region without a war to see if anyone could be called a victor? But this can be said about any American policy, a military solution is impossible. What is yet to be determined is what if anything should America do in the region? Can we even be an honest broker? Or is our only duty, a duty to see if we can keep Americans safe at home from the menace of ISIS and Al Qaeda ?